Spec. Daniel A. Desens wanted to become a psychologist after finishing his Army enlistment.
Last year, he joined the National Guard soon after enrolling at Chowan College in Murfreesboro to help pay for his education.
"The moment he hit Chowan, he knew he was activated. It took two years to actually activate him," Patricia Desens said about her only son's deployment to Iraq on March 1.
The young soldier was killed in Baqubah, Iraq, Thursday when the Bradley Fighting Vehicle he was traveling in came under attack by enemy forces using small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades.
Desens was 20 years old.
A second North Carolina soldier, Capt. Christopher S. Cash, 36, of Winterville also was killed in the attack.
Both soldiers were assigned to the Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 120th Infantry in Jacksonville, according to an Army news release.
"We are greatly saddened by the loss of Capt. Cash and Spc. Desens. They were outstanding soldiers serving their country and paid the ultimate price for the freedom of our country," said Col. William T. Boyd, chief of staff of the N.C. National Guard.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with their families in this time of grief," Boyd said in the release.
A 2001 graduate of Lejeune High School at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corp Base, Desens was one of the captains of the football team and a member of the school's track and wrestling teams.
"He was a stellar performer as far as that was concerned," said his father, Daniel A. Desens Sr.
The senior Desens spent 25 years in the Marine Corps.
"He felt it was every young man's obligation to serve his country," Desens Sr. said.
Friends and other family members remembered Desens as a "real clown" who always put others first.
"I want to start out by saying he was a hero. He wanted to make sure everyone else was happy first," said his best friend Andrew Cross, who was deployed to the Middle East on the same day as Desens and served with him in Operation Iraqi Freedom. "He would do extra details to help anybody over there."
Cross injured his hand on a Bradley tank last week, and arrived home in the United States the same day his best friend was killed.
His mother said she last talked with her son Wednesday, on his fiancee's birthday. The next day, the Department of Defense visited the family home with news of her son's death, Desens Sr. said from the family home in Jacksonville.
Like his best friend, Patricia Desens remembered her son's generosity toward others.
"Last year in Savannah, Ga., he met a homeless person and gave him $80," she said. "They were in training getting ready to deploy."
The fallen soldier idolized his father, a retired master gunnery sergeant. The son, too, longed to join the Marines.
"But I didn't want him in the Marines," his mother said. "I wanted him to join the National Guard. I never thought they would be bringing my son home in a casket."
Nearly overcome with emotion, Patricia Desens said she hopes the public will recognize her son's sacrifice as well as the sacrifice by other members of the National Guard.
"When they come home, they should have the best welcome home ever," she said. "Those boys are over there putting themselves on the line. They should be recognized when they come home, but my son won't be coming home with them."
Daniel Desens is survived by his parents and an older sister, Somer Desens of Jacksonville, who is expecting to have a baby next month. He is also survived by his maternal grandmother Patricia A. Desens of Tucson, Ariz., an uncle Michael George of San Diego, Calif., and his fiancee, Keisha Lei Quiroga of Jacksonville.
The Jones Funeral Home in Jacksonville is handling the funeral arrangements, which are incomplete at this time, his sister said Saturday.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Thomasi McDonald can be reached at 829-4533 or firstname.lastname@example.org.